Texas music is as diverse as the artists who reside within the state and create their own sound based on the myriad influences and experiences in their life. Among the many genres of music indigenous to the state is Tejano, now in existence for several decades, continued by elders and youth alike.
Tejano roots run deep and lifelong adherents such as the Austin-based band, Street People, can testify to that fact. After a successful career that began in the mid-1970s and lasted a decade, Street People went dormant for almost 30 years but has come roaring back to life with a new CD release this month and live performances.
Created by Leonard Davila (trombone and lead vocals) and Joe Ramos (keyboards, guitar and vocals), Street People originally started as a side project while the pair were performing weekend gigs with the Alfonso Ramos Orchestra. Recruited to be a part of the first incarnation of Street People were David Martinez (guitar and vocals with Manny and The C.O.’s), Armando “Kiddo” Alba (drums with Sunny and the Sunliners) and Perry Flores (bassist with a group in San Marcos).
“What started out as a part time group to only play week days when their other groups were not performing, turned into a band that was in demand in the Austin and Central Texas area,” said Davila in a recent interview. Among the places they performed along the Tejano/Chicano circuit were Texas, Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, Kansas, Arizona, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois “during their heyday,” as described the band leader.
Street People first recorded on the Chicano record label belonging to Davila’s friend, Albert Esquivel, of San Antonio. Esquivel secured the band a record deal with Foy Lee of Tear Drop Records, an outfit that recorded most of the top Tejano groups at the time. They went on to release three LPs together. In addition, the band recorded an LP for Joey Lopez of ZAZ Records of San Antonio.
Along the way, Davila obtained management with Michael Block of Third Coast Studios in Austin and recorded a single, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” and a Luis Silva tune, “No Me Importa,” for Sunbelt Legend Records. His experience at Third Coast led him to an appearance “with the Willie Nelson camp as an extra on a video for ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ and the movie ‘Songwriter,’” added Davila. While with the agency, Street People musicians showed their versatility collectively and individually as opening acts for James Brown, Jose Feliciano, Carl Carlton (“Bad Mama Jama”), Tierra, Johnny Rodriguez, Freddie Fender, Ernest Tubb and others. The band also appeared on the Raul Velasco television show, “Siempre En Domingo,” and always placed “some sort of Chicano music in our sets.”
Street People was honored with a “Leonard Davila and Street People Day” by the City of Austin on June 9, 1983, and has some of their history archived at the Texas Music Museum in Austin. “It’s an honor to have a panel at the Texas Music Museum,” stated Davila. “I need to take my Mom to see that.”
Davila’s music career is full of significant history, including an early experience while attending Johnston High School performing with Manuel “Cowboy” Donley y Las Estrellas, which lasted until his enlistment in the U.S. Marines in 1967. Davila did a tour in Viet Nam with the First Marines.
“Cowboy taught me harmonies and how to create,” Davila said of the recent recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts honor. “That has stayed with me all these years. I have recorded tunes that we played with Cowboy and to this day we are still friends. Love that man (in a manly way). The last time I saw Cowboy he said he wanted me to do a tune with him and I’m going to get him to record a tune with me soon.”
In 1985, Davila decided to focus on a position with the U.S. Postal Service, leaving music behind. Over the years, though, he remained a strong advocate of Tejano music, including helping launch the Austin Tejano Music Coalition. He retired after a lengthy career from the Postal Service and began to kick around the idea of reforming the band. “I had not performed for 28 years,” said Davila, describing how he and Alberto “Skeeter” Amesquita, a former band mate from their days with The Mexican Revolution, “sort of got ‘the itch’ to do it again.” To begin, they started reaching out to the “many musician ‘brothers’” that they have known for years. “All seasoned musicians,” said Davila.
The first person they approached was Tony “Foreman” Matamoros of Temple, an original member of Little Joe and The Latinaires and La Familia, followed by Jimmy “Chiefy” Duran, who also was with Little Joe and the Latinaires. Then Alex Hernandez, who has been with The Latin Breed, The Royal Jesters, The Mexican Revolution and a past member of Street People, and Charlie “Chalio” Alvarez, formerly with Agustin Ramirez, signed on. Hector Molina, of the Alfonso Ramos Orchestra and Agustin Ramirez, Charles Reyna, who had also been with Alfonso Ramos, completed the group, with Frank Ramirez, currently a drummer with the band Este Vato, joining in June 2014.
“Frank is the son of a former bandmate and ‘compadre’ of mine,” said Davila, adding, “he caught my attention even before I knew who his dad was. He is young, energetic and willing to learn from the old guys. He is a good fit for the group, something fresh.”
Last August 22, Street People kicked off the Tejano Music National Convention in Las Vegas. At the time, a chance meeting with several promoters and radio personalities that Davila knew from the past resulted in a nomination for the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame. For their years in the music industry, performing and recording, the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame inducted five members of the band including Davila, Matamoros, Duran, Hernandez, and Raul Reyes, who was with Street People when they regrouped, but was also formerly with Little Joe and The Latinaires. At the induction, Davila stated, “I am grateful for this honor and so happy that my wife of 47 years, my children ages 45 and 39, who grew up listening to my music, and my grandchildren, who had never seen me perform or even knew that I played music, were able to witness this.”
Davila also orchestrated a KLRU production in 2013, “Vamos Al Baile,” being credited as co-Executive Producer. The “Arts in Context” portion of the show has been nominated for a Lone Star Emmy. The same summer, he received the “Idolos Del Barrio” award from the Austin Latino Music Association (ALMA). This and being inducted into the Hall of Fame “have really made me feel blessed. I thank God for giving me the ability, my wife and children for their support all these years, and for my grandchildren who think that I am now famous,” he added with a laugh, “also, for the great talent in Street People and for their continued support in this project.”
Street People are currently working on their new record with Gilbert Velasquez, a 13 time Grammy winning producer from San Antonio. “Ironically, Street People is the very first group that Gilbert recorded solo at Amen Studio in the ’70s,” said Davila. “The CD has nine original tunes penned by Johnny Degollado of Austin and Eddie Aleman from San Antonio. Street People had recorded several of Aleman’s tunes in the past.”
Street People is scheduled to perform at the Mexican American Experience on March 18-9 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. They’re also adding new dates to the calendar including treks to Fort Worth and San Antonio in the next few months.